Recently in Cairo for the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), Lawrence Bender was no stranger to Arab audiences, who, like viewers everywhere, loved his hit movies, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Bastards, Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. And these are just a handful of his many box office successes. Bender was at the CIFF to give a master class and to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his long and prestigious career in the film industry. He was welcomed to Cairo by his good friend, eniGma’s Founder and CEO Yasmine Shihata. In his less than 48 hours, Bender somehow managed to go from the Egyptian Museum to the red carpet and to have a sit down with Yasmine at the Marriott where they had a lovely chit chat. Here are some exclusive excerpts of their Cairo chat.
Let’s start by telling us how you went from earning a civil engineering degree to a successful career in the entertainment industry?
I went to school to be a civil engineer because I was good in math and science but later I started to think that this was not what I wanted to do in life. At the time, I happened to be dating a woman who was a dancer and we used to go out dancing. One day she told me that they needed guy dancers and that I should join the dance department. I think that was the first time in my life that I found something I just loved. You know when you’re in love for the first time? That’s how I felt performing at the School of African Dance. Then this ballet company in Maine saw me, and they asked me to join their company. So, I decided that when I would graduate, I would become a dancer. And that’s what I did, I moved to New York and I became a dancer.
To make a long story short, then I was injured. After a certain point, it became clear that my dream was over and that was just a terrible feeling. I then joined a friend of mine who went to acting classes. I found myself in an acting class with Mickey Rourke, Jessica Lange, Marla Thomas, Christopher Reed, all these amazing people! I found myself again, with a new passion! So, I moved to LA to become an actor; but after a long time of struggling and borrowing quarters from friends to put money in the tank for my gas, I realised it was not going to happen.
So, I started working on movie sets and I just loved that. So that’s how it went: following a dream, not happening, being distraught, then finding a new dream, not happening, being distraught and following another dream. After a few years of working on movie sets, I said to myself that I want to be that person, namely the producer. As soon as I made that decision everything started happening for me. In retrospect, I realise that producing is using both sides of your brain, the side that’s emotional, creative and magical; and the other side, the practical things, the problem solving, financial issues, the things that make everything work. You must be able to use both sides of your brain to be a producer. Without knowing that, I was developing that way all along. Civil engineering is all about problem-solving, while acting is all about creating a character. Without knowing it, all my experiences built the structure for me to become a producer.
Does being an actor help you relate to the actors that you work with?
I love acting. I didn’t make it as an actor but I love the process of acting. I love watching actors go through what they do and I feel like I understand it. It’s not my job as a producer to work with the actors but I understand their needs and I understand how to help them in the movie. Actors need a safe place. After all, the movie is your actors out there on the screen.
With Hollywood being such a competitive industry, did you find it as hard as people make it seem? What do you think differentiated you? Was it looks, brains or just being there at the right time?
It is definitely tough but I think it was a mix of all those things. When I decided to be a producer, I ended up producing some movies that my friend Boaz Yakin directed. Boaz introduced me to a guy named Scott Spiegel, who had co-written a script for a movie called Evil Dead 2, which was directed by Sam Raimi. We made a little horror movie called Intruder, which Scott wrote and directed and I produced. Sam was in it, Bruce Campbell was in it and all those cool people. That is where I got my chops, producing on the fly and learning everything. It’s where I learnt how to do it by doing it and it worked out really well.
Scott introduced me to Quentin Tarantino, who was very frustrated at the time. He had written a lot of scripts but nothing was really happening yet and we really connected. It was fortuitous for the both of us because he was not getting anywhere and I was really struggling. Somehow the two of us together, one plus one equalled more than two! That was what got the ball rolling. We put together Reservoir Dogs. Then Quentin’s buddy, Roger Avery wrote Killing Zoey, which Quentin and I executively produced. I then called Boaz and said I’m producing a movie and I know you want to direct. That ended up being a movie called Fresh which I ended up producing and he directed it. It was all these little groups of people; we started expanding together.
With all these movies with Quentin Tarantino becoming so successful, that must have been such a journey for the two of you.
It really was. It was obviously a huge journey. At the end of the day, we both believe in the work of making a movie. It was our profession and we took it seriously. In a sense, all that changed was that we had more knowledge. We became professionals. We both brought the same energy, the same desire to make something original, different and interesting and we just kept going.
The movies got so much attention. How was that for you after all the struggles?
That’s true. But you know, Quentin was more of the star, I was more the one behind the scenes. My life changed but I always kept working hard, even though I was travelling a lot, meeting amazing people, having these big premieres, going to film festivals. It was super interesting. I think because I struggled for so long, although my life did change, internally I didn’t change. My dad, for instance, was born in 1929, he was raised during the depression in the 30s and so raising us, he always had that mentality that he came from that background. Because I was broke and struggled for so long, I always remained pretty grounded in all of this. I’ve been working really hard for a long time.
Do you think you and Quentin will collaborate again in the future?
That chapter closed after Inglorious Bastards. It was a great experience working together. At one point he asked me to his house, we had a few glasses of wine and he said to me “Look, I feel like we’re growing apart and we’re not going to work together anymore but thank you for everything.” It was a very nice way of ending that chapter.
Did you feel that you had grown apart?
Honestly, I didn’t but he did. He explained how he felt and it was completely understandable. I said, “if you ever need anything let me know.” We had such a long run together. He was always very generous with me, so I had nothing to be upset about.
You made many appearances in some of your movies, like in Pulp Fiction. Were you revisiting your old dream of being an actor?
A little bit. I loved acting. It was such a big part of my development as a person. I grew a lot as a person when I was learning to act and I just loved it. I really had a good time with the little cameo I had in Pulp Fiction. We really had fun with it.
You also produced award-winning documentaries, including An Inconvenient Truth. How does being a climate change activist influence your life?
I was really moved by Al Gore when he did his slideshow about the climate crisis in 2005. To make a long story short, I had a team of people put together, along with the director and we went out and pitched the idea to Al Gore. We were all very nervous, wondering if he would agree to make a slideshow into a movie. When he said yes, that was life-changing for all of us filmmakers. The film had a huge impact. Al had been going around showing the slideshow to a few hundred people at a time and suddenly, millions and millions of people were seeing it. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry slammed back, confusing the public; but ultimately, it did have a big impact.
Climate is one of the biggest problems we face in the world today, which is why I co-chaired the board at the Institute of the Environment at UCLA and did a fundraiser to help fund PhD students and research professors. I just think it’s one of the most important things in the world. We have a big crisis on our hands and people don’t realise that. If we don’t radically change things soon, we’re going to experience even more disastrous effects, including massive fires, massive storms, desertification, the rise of sea levels and on and on.
Now that you are in Egypt, would you consider doing a production with an Arab director or actor?
It’s my third time being here and I’m happy to be here! The answer is, of course, yes 100%. There’s so much great history, so many things to make movies about. It’s all about finding the right person and the right material. I feel that Netflix has opened the door to more cultures for viewers. It’s interesting that while the average American is very focused on America, suddenly you have a movie from Spain, like Money Heist and Squid Game from Korea and everyone’s watching them. I think that good shows coming out from this region, with good stories about the culture, will breakthrough. Netflix changed everything, and I’m really open to any ideas.
What words best describe you?
Leo, Libra, passionate and loving
If there’s one thing you would change about yourself, what would it be?
I’m very direct, super direct. I need to find a way to be able to tell people the truth but in a way that makes it easier to understand. Sometimes, I say things in a way that might be truthful but hard to hear.
In your personal experience, how do you stay modest despite the success you’ve had?
I didn’t grow up with a lot. I wouldn’t say we were poor growing up. But having a mother working with three kids and getting food stamps and then ten years of struggling after graduating college, it’s hard to forget where you came from.
Who is your hero or role model?
I don’t know if I even have one. I guess when you’re growing up your role model is your dad, as a boy. And your mom. My parents were my role models, I guess.
What keeps you up at night?
My son, worrying about what’s going to happen with our world, politics in the United States, global warming. And sometimes, how can I get this movie or TV show made.
What do you love most about your life?
Meeting really interesting people, getting to have conversations with people who specialise in areas that have nothing to do with me, people who can bring unique points of view and understandings that I would never otherwise be able to meet.
If you had to choose a different career path, what would it be?
There isn’t one. When I start to get tired of what I’m doing, I think to myself, what else would I rather do? I have concluded that there isn’t anything else I would want to do.
Since you’re so active, would you consider getting into politics?
At one point, Ariana Huffington told me, “You should run for congress.” I thought about it and I almost did it. Then I decided I would rather try to be influential without being in politics.